Last week, a two month old infant died on board an AirAsia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Perth. The tragic death followed an inflight medical emergency where the distressed baby was soon noticed to be grey in colour and struggling to breathe. The baby was treated immediately upon landing in Perth but was unable to be resuscitated.
This very unfortunate incident raises a common question amongst the medical community - what happens when the flight crew asks if there is a doctor on board?
Legally, there is currently no common law requirement for medical practitioners or medical students to provide assistance in an emergency. The matter rarely comes before the courts, but in 2014, the Supreme Court of Western Australia considered that there was no evidence of “a specific professional duty on a medical practitioner to attend and provide medical assistance to a person who is not a patient in the particular circumstances” (see Dekker v Medical Board of Australia  WASCA 216).
Ethically, there is an obligation to offer assistance in an emergency, taking account of your own safety, skills, and other options available. You are also then obliged to continue to provide that assistance until your services are no longer required (see the Code of Conduct section 2.5).
All Australian states and territories have some form of Good Samaritan protection. In general, the laws provide immunity from civil liability for emergency care provided in good faith and without recklessness. On a flight, this may require an assessment of whether you currently suffer from impairment due to either medication or alcohol before providing the requisite care. You may wish to advise the crew of your qualifications but current temporary impairment and then collectively assess whether you can provide any assistance.
Remember that you should still obtain a relevant history and consent for examination from the passenger where possible. Given the higher likelihood of international travellers, you may need to engage the family members or cabin crew to act as translator as required.
If you have a medico-legal query you would like assistance with, please do not hesitate to contact us at email@example.com